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Magic on the Edges

February 15th, 2013

by K. V. Johansen

Magic—not spells and hurled fireballs, but that inspiring combination of wonder, awe, and excitement that drives artistic creation—is, for me, born on the edges of things. Edges mean boundaries and borders, tension and change and flow. In the landscapes of fiction the rise of desert into mountain, the uneasy meeting of the cleared and settled with the primeval forest, the hint of island shadow on the horizon of the sea, are the sorts of places that suggest Story. They are zones of transformation where things can or might or should happen, the places where change is found, and change coming for good or ill to a character or to their world is what drives stories.

A lot of my favourite stories, the ones I read when young and which fuelled my desire to tell stories myself, start off with edges. The Shire of The Hobbit (never so named in it, of course) is a domesticated land on the edges of a great unknown, but the unknown forces its way in over the borders, prowling on the fringes of collective hobbit awareness. Wolves came out of the wild in a hard winter; goblins were fought by heroic ancestors; “lads and lasses” used to run off into the blue for adventures, and dwarves now pass through, travelling on their own mysterious business, while in The Lord of the Rings itself strangers begin to cross the southern border and like distant thunder, there are rumours of unease in the wider world, though the sun still shines on the bucolic idyll of Hobbiton. In Sutcliff’s The Lantern-Bearers, Aquila lives in an edge time and an edge place. Rome is withdrawing from Britain, the empire is failing, the barbarian raiders are settling and staying. The frontier of civilization is retreating like the tide, and an era is coming to an end. The kingdom of Damar, in McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, has beyond its frontier an unknown land of strange and dangerous magic, out of which the hero Aerin’s mysterious mother appeared. Taran, in the Chronicles of Prydain, lives with his elderly guardian in a cottage surrounded by forest, where a straying boy can be pursued by a monstrous huntsman out of myth and rescued by a legendary hero only a few miles from the safety of his home. The known and explored universe in Cherryh’s Chanur series is revealed to share a frontier with unknown aliens; that discovery disrupts the balance of power, creating new lines of tension between the several intelligent species of ship-captain Pyanfar’s known world. In Glen Cook’s Black Company series, the political world is on an epochal edge, an empire breaking apart.

The heroes of these stories that played such a role in forming the compost out of which my own stories began to grow are on the edges themselves. Bilbo is not, at first, an edge character, but he becomes one by daring to cross over the boundaries of his illusory safety. Afterwards, he never fits properly into his former place again. “… Bilbo was cracked, and Frodo’s cracking,” says Ted Sandyman: Frodo is already regarded as odd, not quite fitting into his proper place as a moneyed gentleman of the Shire, and he is restless, hearing the call of the road. Aquila, a British-born Roman officer whose family is generations removed from Rome, stands on an edge between places and times and between duty and family. Aerin is born on the edge, child of a suspected foreign witch, never accepted, never her father’s heir. Taran, a foundling ambitious for heroism, stands at the edge of himself, always looking outwards to become something more. Pyanfar finds herself an edge person whose decisions push her out of her place and into a role where she stands between species, negotiating a new balance of power. The mercenary physician Croaker is on the edge, ever observing and recording the history happening about him, standing back from it all, until he falls into the heart of a disintegrating world and pulls the company with him into a long transformation.

In my own writing, it’s the characters who exist on the edges who most fascinate me and fire my imagination. They’re the wanderers who are not wholly of the societies through which they pass, or the outsiders not entirely at home with or accepted by the people amongst whom they must live. Wren, Rookfeather, and Kokako of the Torrie books, Maurey and Nethin from The Warlocks of Talverdin, and Moth, Mikki, Holla-Sayan, and Attalissa of the Blackdog world are all edge people, by choice or by circumstances or both. Of the nine above, only two, Wren and Kokako, are entirely human, and that’s another edge that drives my imagination when I sit down to write. By being outside of humanity, even if only a little, they are immediately set apart, and by being apart, they become the observers, the restless, the ones who will most likely be the first to notice the shadows on the horizon and decide to investigate, or who will be that shadow on the horizon themselves. It’s characters such as these who kindle my urge to find out more about them by telling their stories. In setting out to discover them through their stories, I have to build and explore their worlds, which leads to adventure, history, politics, gods and goddess and demons, battles with enemies and solitary struggles with the self in the dark, but in all my fantasy novels, it starts with that one character on the edge of being something else, and a horizon, a frontier, that must be crossed. That’s where magic lies.

About the Guest Author

K. V. Johansen


K. V. Johansen

K. V. Johansen was born in Kingston, Ontario, and is the author of numerous works for children, teens, and adults. She predominantly writes secondary-world fantasy but is also the author of some science fiction, picture books, and two books on the history of children’s fantasy literature. Johansen has an MA from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Her lifelong interest in ancient and medieval history and the history of languages has had a great influence on her writing and world-building. Aside from travelling to the Republic of Macedonia in 2010 to receive the first-ever “International Ana Frank Award for Children’s Literature [in Macedonian]”, меѓународната награда „Ана Франк“ за најдобра книга, for the Macedonian translation of Torrie and the Snake-Prince, Тори и принцот-змија, she has not done anything terribly interesting or adventurous in her life; she’s been too busy writing. Her most recent book is Blackdog, an epic fantasy for adults published by Pyr. She lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with a wicked white dog who, thus far, has not evinced any sign of being a shapeshifter, though if slipper-stealing constitutes evidence of a demoniacal nature, he might quality.

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Not Your Ordinary Sweetest Day

October 25th, 2012

by Brady Allen

I can’t plot out my short stories ahead of time; I like to discover them as I write. Just start with an image and see where it goes. That, for me, is what makes writing wondrous.

Wonder is generally seen as a good thing, of course, though some of it is threatening and dark, and I reckon there are only some of us who can’t help but search for it, darkness, and wonder at it.

I see darkness in a look one student gives another in class when I’m teaching; in the grocery store when some gal tries to get a green avocado near the bottom and sends the whole pile tumbling to the floor; in the shoes tossed over the phone lines and the birds that sit next to them; in the man selling flowers on the street corner on Sweetest Day; in an apparently empty rowboat, or high school band concert, or a can of Silly String, or even a family having a picnic to celebrate the Goodness of the Good in the Good, Good World. Even in a sweet comment my four-year-old daughter makes, and in a bumper sticker that says, “My daughter the honors student can kick your football player’s ass” (okay, I’ve never seen this one, but I’ve always wanted it).

I’m far from a worrywart about myself or things related to me. In fact, I’m probably just a bit too irreverent and unconcerned. But I worry about those closest to me, like my aging parents, and, of course, first and foremost, my two daughters. So, the answer here about how wonder, and more importantly darkness, are part of my creative process, well. . . .

This is far from being my original thought, and Ray Bradbury probably put it better many times, but, consider this: wonder comes with remembering what it was like to be a kid. Kids have a childhood full of “whys” and “hows”: Why does the moon change shapes? Why do we have eyebrows? Why does pencil lead stick to paper? (The last being a question from my teenage daughter when she was in pre-school—she was the master of the Stump-Daddy Question.)

As we get older, we have to keep the why/how part of us but also let it blossom into the “what if” stage. This is where invention comes in, how we progress and adapt and evolve. It’s also how we start to worry, and how we cause ourselves to have to face the darkness, the Unknown, if you will. What if ________, whom I love dearly, gets sick, gets hurt, disappears, or, God forbid, dies?

For fiction writers, especially speculative fiction writers, our job is in the equally maligned and loved What-if Business. Those folks who don’t write, or at least read, fiction may not understand. Those of us who like to write and/or read dark fantasy fiction, or horror fiction as we should call it unless we’re afraid of the stigma, well, our what-ifs tend to be the kind that make some folks shy away, I reckon. You see, I believe that what-ifs are further probes toward honesty. If hows and whys lead to “facts,” what-ifs lead toward deeper exploration, something beyond facts: truths.

If facts deal with science and logic, truths deal with what it’s like to be complex, sometimes disturbed, confused organisms called humans. So truths deal with humanity beyond a biological level. These truths are in the darkness, they are the Unknown, and that’s what we’re striving for.

Fiction is all a big humpin’ WHAT IF.

What if one of my students has noticed a tiny, hairy, naked woman climbing behind another student’s ear while carrying a spear? What if the gal who dumped the avocados all over the floor leaves them there, and then me and the other shoppers find her in another aisle later and she is trapped, her face in a silent scream just beneath the surface of a newly sprouted but already dead-looking avocado tree in the cereal aisle? What if the birds are the ones that steal shoes and string them over power lines? What if the Sweetest Day flower salesman has a thorny rose where his penis should be? What if worms fill the bottom of the rowboat, and they have teeth and someone desperately needs to get off the shore? What if a fire alarm sounds during the school band concert, the auditorium is evacuated, and the firefighters and rescue squad go on an ax-murdering rampage?

What if?

The wonder is in the form of imagination for the writer. And imagination can only come from memory. We draw upon things in our mind already and put them together in new ways. No one could have written about a flying ship . . . if a ship and knowledge of flying were not already there in the ol’ brain, in other words. And dark fiction likes to work in fantastic imagery, which often serves intentionally or unintentionally as metaphor.

The tiny, hairy, spear-carrying woman might stand for jealousy. The face in the avocado tree might represent selfishness. The shoe-stealing birds might stand for mankind’s inadequacies. And the flower peddler’s anatomy might represent greed or secret lust.

Wonder for me—dark wonder, so often in my work—is in saying, in wondering, “What’s the story behind that?” Going from the concrete, which is the literal imagery in the story, to the abstract, which is, really, theme.

It’s in seeing and showing the world in vivid detail and in discovering what humanity’s place is in it by witnessing human struggle. And in knowing that if you see Silly String scattered and sprayed all around the end of someone’s driveway and mailbox, it surely has to do with a mail carrier who is struggling desperately in his relationship with a rodeo clown who is haunted by dreams of a psychic bull that can predict the immediate future.

About the Guest Author

Brady Allen


Brady Allen

Brady Allen is the author of Back Roads and Frontal Lobes, a collection of 23 tales in the genres of horror, crime, the road story, soft sci-fi, dark fantasy, surrealism, existentialism, the weird tale, and even some plain ol’ realism. He has published numerous short stories in magazines, journals, and anthologies in the U.S, England, and Ireland and has received honorable mentions for a couple of them in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror volumes from St. Martin’s Press, as well as an Individual Artist Fellowship in fiction from the Ohio Arts Council for three others. He loves Reds baseball on a transistor radio, and the sound of a train in the still of the night calls to him. Allen teaches writing at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and lives in Dayton with his two daughters.

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All the Stories I Remember

October 18th, 2012

by Christopher Shearer

When Will Horner asked me to contribute to the “Awakenings” blog, I had to think about it, and when I thought about it, I realized I needed to think more. You see, the point of the blog is to talk about what “awakens your wonder,” and if I’m being honest with you and with myself, the answer to that would be everything. I don’t think there’s a single thing that happens that doesn’t make me feel something or leave an impression that someday might turn into a story. And that’s the way it works with most (possibly all) creative types. We are inspired by and reflect the world around us. Not just a part of it. All of it. But that’s not an acceptable answer. I can’t sit here any type “everything” and be done with it. How does that reveal anything? It’s too vague to hold any real meaning, no matter how true it may be. This left me searching for something more specific, something inside that ephemeral “everything” that I could latch onto and explore, but what? That question lead me to a rereading of many of my stories, and I discovered something there. I discovered a piece of “everything” that I seem to return to again and again, unknowingly until now. I discovered my memories there, in every story, just below the surface or sometimes blow-by-blow as things happened. But that discovery made me pause, because is that an acceptable answer? What’s special about memories? And aren’t they in themselves stories?

They are stories, I think, because what we remember is never exactly what happened. It can’t be. Our perception is always skewed by our desires, by our wants, our needs, by our lives and hopes and dreams. By us. What we remembered is never truly factual because it’s our memory of it, our interpretation. We place emphasis on certain things; we see things from angles specific to us. Our memories are part of us. They are our story, but is that story something that truly “awakens our wonder”? It is.

Thinking about it, I remembered many of the stories of Harlan Ellison, especially the novellas All the Lies That Are My Life and Pretty Maggie Money Eyes. Both of these, he claims, were straight out of his memories. And then I remembered an interview I watched once with Ray Bradbury, where he talked about the story that changed his life. That story, he said, was “The Lake,” which he based on a memory. He did the same, he claimed, with every story after it. Then I picked up Richard Matheson’s new novel, Generations, which is overtly autobiographical, and I realized this was something I could talk about, because if it’s good enough for the greats, then why wouldn’t it be good enough for me?

Looking over my stories, I realized it’s the common thread. My first published story grew out of my parents’ custody battle, my first Pushcart-nominated story grew out of an early morning walk in Columbus, Ohio’s Park of Roses, when I watched the snow melt. You see, even that moment was special, at least the way I see it. I wasn’t just wandering while stuff dripped around me. I was thinking about my life. I was feeling the cold and the wind and the wet, and that was making me feel something, face something. And when I think about it, every memory is like that. Maybe it’s because of its importance that I remember it or maybe everything that happens in life is that important. I don’t know. But I do know that nothing is simply a “fact.” There’s always more to it. There’s always us inside of it, and we see that, we know that in what we remember. We don’t—or at least I don’t—always notice it as it’s happening, but I do when I look back. And that’s where stories come from. They come from moments that are more than they seem at first glance, that carry more in them than you’d expect.

When I was little, probably two, maybe three, my family lived on a small farm in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, and I used to go out back and sit on this large rock that waited by the edge of the forest there. I’d sit there and think, and I remember seeing the shadows stretch and then take hold of each other. I remember the yellow eyes of beasts hidden in those trees. I remember the sounds and the smells, and I remember the way it made me feel. Now, is what I remember what happened? In one sense I know it isn’t. I was just a toddler sitting on a rock. But in another sense, it is, because it’s how I lived those moments. And stories come from what I lived, not from what necessarily was. And you only get that—get the full sense of that—in memories.

About the Guest Author

Christopher Shearer


Christopher Shearer

Christopher Shearer’s writing has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Horror World, Big Pulp, From the Fallout Shelter, the all-star anthology Dark Light, and many more. In the past five years, he has received three Penn State University Best Short Story Awards, a Demon Minds Best Short Story Award, and two Pushcart Prize Nominations. He works as an editor with Cemetery Dance Publications and reads for John Joseph Adams’s magazines, Nightmare and Lightspeed, as well as his upcoming anthologies. Chris is also a featured book reviewer on fearnet.com and co-chair of the Bram Stoker Award Long Fiction Jury. He attends Seton Hill University’s MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction where he is mentored by Tim Waggoner and Lawrence C. Connolly, and he is finishing his first novel.

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Awaken the Wonder

January 2nd, 2012

by W. H. Horner

I first stepped foot inside a Borders ten years ago. I was working in a Waldens store down the street at the time. I’d certainly been inside big libraries before, but never a bookstore of such scale. Rows upon rows of books: all of them ripe for the picking. It boggled my mind. I distinctly remember going through the history section and being amazed at the breadth and depth of the selection. From tiny niche interests to larger topics, there was a book available. It was overwhelming, but I loved it.

Eventually, I left Waldens and moved from various jobs in and out of retail while I worked on building FE—and eventually I found myself applying to work at that Borders. It was a bittersweet time, since my previous employer was going out of business, and though the transition wasn’t easy, it was nice to be back in book retail—now in the big time.

Wow. Borders. Part of me wondered if I would ever get used to working in such a large space . . . if I would ever figure out where everything belonged. Funny thing is, after a few years, the store seemed so much smaller than it did when I first stepped foot inside of it all those years earlier. The seemingly endless stacks had become quite finite, and I knew just where to look for pretty much anything.

In fact, being at Borders became quite pedestrian. It was simply a job, and even though there were times when I would be delighted by some unexpected treasure that I pulled out of a shipment, and there were numerous great times with the group of coworkers who often felt like a family . . . it was still just a job.

That sense of wonder from before dwindled as the place grew smaller.

It came back within the first few days of the announcement of the liquidation, thanks to the number of people who stopped in or called to see if the news was really true, and to say how sorry they were, and how sad they were to see us go. We were a source of knowledge, and of wonder, where people could wander around a corner and discover magical things they didn’t even know they were looking for.

I was sad to see it go, too.

That change came about during a time of change. Things are afoot here at FE, as you can see with the new website. We have always been about polished prose and gorgeous art . . . we have always been about working closely with authors and artists to create amazing works of collaboration, and most of all, we have always been about that sense of wonder.

I’ve realized that it’s time that we display that quality in absolutely everything we do: hence the redesigned website. Down to the smallest detail, we will strive to create a sense of wonder with everything we do.

That is our pledge. That is our promise.

We have big ideas and big plans in the works. Be sure to keep your eyes on us; you’ll like what you see.

Stay tuned for more “Awakenings.” We will be welcoming regular guest bloggers to this spot to share with us what inspires them, allowing them to share their wonder so that we can all be inspired.

I promise that it’s going to be a fun ride.

William H. Horner
Publisher / Editor-in-Chief
Fantasist Enterprises